Stephen D. Bechtel Jr., patriarch of the family for whom the Summit Bechtel Reserve is named, dies at 95

Stephen D. Bechtel Jr., Distinguished Eagle Scout, Silver Buffalo recipient, and CEO Emeritus of the Bechtel Corp. construction group, died peacefully at his home in San Francisco on Monday. He was 95.

In the business world, Bechtel was known as the man who turned a U.S.-based family company into a global powerhouse. But to Scouts and Scouters across the country, his name is synonymous with cutting-edge high adventure and character building.

It was the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation’s $50 million gift that made possible the construction of the Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve — the BSA’s multipurpose, year-round destination for high adventure and leadership training that serves as the permanent home for the National Scout Jamboree.

“Our contribution to the Summit Reserve project in West Virginia is, by far, the biggest and best investment we have ever made,” Bechtel said in the book Steady at the Helm – Lessons in Leadership From Stephen D. Bechtel Jr., published by the BSA in 2016. “The Boy Scouts of America are doing a very good job of teaching young men the important attributes of citizenship and personal character, and it was very meaningful to us to be able to help them.”

As young Steve Jr. was working his way up the ranks of Scouting with Troop 4 in Piedmont, California, he was also learning about the family business from his father, Steve Sr., and grandfather Warren.

“The experiences and lessons of Scouting have been very beneficial to me over the years,” Bechtel said in Steady at the Helm.

“Even as a young boy I could see that Scouting encouraged personal values that were important to success in life,” he said. “In fact, over time the values highlighted in the Scout Oath and Law helped to frame and validate my worldview.”

A leader in the making

Warren founded the Bechtel Company in 1898 to help build railroads. Business grew steadily for the next few decades before they took on their most high-profile job yet: helping construct the Hoover Dam.

Warren died during the early stages of the project, but Steve Sr. stepped in and led it through to completion. Steve Jr. visited the Hoover Dam site regularly with his father to observe firsthand how such a massive project should be run.

Steve Jr. earned his Eagle in 1940. A short time later, as a senior in high school, he volunteered for duty in the Marine Corps.

Within the next few years, Steve Jr. graduated with a degree in civil engineering from Purdue University, married his high school sweetheart, earned his MBA from Stanford, and went to work for his father’s company as a field engineer.

Steve Jr. was aware of the potential problems that could come from being the boss’s son.

“My strategy in beginning my full-time career with Bechtel was simple: work harder than anybody else on any job to which I was assigned, refuse any privileges that didn’t come with the position I held at the time, and be treated according to the quality of my work, no more and no less,” he said.

Bechtel’s bronze statue at the Summit Bechtel Reserve.

Long-lasting contributions

In 1960, Steve Jr. was named president of Bechtel Corp., and in 1973, he was named chairman, where he worked until stepping down in 1990.

Under Steve Jr.’s leadership, Bechtel’s sales improved eleven-fold, its workforce grew five-fold, and the number of major projects increased from 18 to 119, according to the Bechtel Corp. website.

Steve Jr. established his first charitable foundation in 1957. It and its successors have distributed more than $1 billion in grants, many of which have supported STEM education and conservation causes.

His connection to Scouting always ran deep. His uncle, Kenneth Bechtel, served as the BSA’s national president from 1956-1959. Steve Jr. received the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award in 1984 and the Silver Buffalo Award, the BSA’s highest commendation for service to youth, in 2005.

His experiences in Scouting inspired him to stay active in civic affairs, serving on six presidential commissions for three different U.S. presidents, including Lyndon Johnson’s Committee on Urban Housing and fellow Eagle Scout Gerald Ford’s Labor-Management Committee.

Photos courtesy of the BSA Office of Development.

About Aaron Derr 24 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Boys' Life and Scouting magazines, a former Cubmaster and current Scouts BSA volunteer.